Clashes in stands at Headingley as Afghanistan-Pakistan turns ugly

One of the ugliest cricket matches at an ICC event ended with words of grace from each side, something that could not be said of the fans who threw punches at each other while in the stands, chucked rubbish, bottles and even a rubbish bin and finally invaded the pitch as soon as the match finished. Those outside used steel barriers on the streets as weapons. Fighting among fans – to this degree – is unheard of at modern ICC events.

It would appear, though, that the authorities either were unaware of or underestimated the animosity between the two countries and their fans. The action from on-site security and stewards was not swift or decisive enough to prevent clashes from breaking out in the stands or to stop people from entering the field of play at the end of the match. Security lapses were visible even at the start of the match as quite a few fans were seen jumping the boundary walls of the stadium to gain illegal entrance.

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The pitch invasion finally raised the biggest alarm for the players. Mohammad Nabi was almost tackled accidentally by a security officer as he went after a pitch invader. This raises serious question marks over the security of the players and the fans in the ongoing World Cup.

“We are aware of some scuffles among a minority of fans and are currently working with the venue security team and the local police force, West Yorkshire Police, to ensure there are no further incidents,” an ICC spokesperson said after the first incident, which took place an hour into the match. “We do not condone this type of behaviour, and will take appropriate action against any anti-social behaviour that spoils the enjoyment for the majority of fans.”

At least two fans were evicted early in the match, but whatever action was taken was evidently not enough as rioting resumed in the dying moments.

Few of them were ejected from stadium by security, many invaded the stadium jumping the wall, occupying seats without tickets. Ugly scenes! Anti sportsmanship by Afghan fans. Disappointing. https://t.co/XKftrpLqDh

— Faizan Lakhani (@faizanlakhani) June 29, 2019

Geopolitical tensions have been high between Kabul and Islamabad. The two countries are divided by a porous border, the Durand Line, which was drawn up in 1893 between Afghanistan and British India. Refugees, drugs and terror and American influence moved through this border freely for about 40 years before it was closed temporarily in 2017. Cross-border movements are much more difficult now.

These tensions manifest themselves in cricket all the more because Afghanistan learnt their cricket in Pakistan but are now beholden to India for the BCCI’s help in giving their national team an adopted home ground and helping them with infrastructure.

Pakistan fans celebrate their last-over win over Afghanistan that keeps their World Cup hopes alive Getty Images

On the field, though, the match was played in good spirit, and both teams were full of praise for each other. Representatives from both sides who spoke to the press after the game said they were not aware of what went on in the stands. Both parties asked for calm and better behaviour when informed. Pakistan’s Imad Wasim urged the fans to stop fighting because they are all Muslims, and thus brothers. Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib reminded his countrymen they represent their country wherever they go.

However, it is unfair to expect them to react accurately when they didn’t know what exactly had happened. What they were fully aware of was the contest they were in. Pakistan came within one mistake of getting beaten and practically bowing out of the tournament, and they knew a lot of it was down to the quality of bowling they faced.

“Look, their spinners, they’re world class,” Imad said. “If they score consistently over 250 or 260 on any track, they can cause trouble to any team. So credit goes to Afghanistan. I think last five years they rose up. And look at that, they’re giving a tough time to every team. They gave India a tough time. They gave us a tough time. And there are a lot of teams, you know. So Afghanistan, I think, is a force to reckon with in a couple of years’ time.”

Wahab Riaz, who broke the game open with a six in the 49th over, knew they had been stretched to their limits. He said if Afghanistan’s batting can improve they can threaten any team. Naib gave all the credit to Imad’s innings of 49 for closing out the game when intense pressure was on. A few Pakistan fans waited near the Afghanistan team bus to console them and tell them that they played well and were unlucky to lose. Rashid Khan obliged them with selfies.

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